CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.
Given the fact that America has more than 100,000 of its soldiers now in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan, one might conclude the year just ending was not a good one for diplomacy.
But that's not the way the Bush administration's chief diplomat, Secretary of State Colin Powell, sees it. The retired four-star army general and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writing in Foreign Affairs (January/February 2004), says, "It is natural that the war on terrorism has become the United States' number one foreign policy priority."
In an article titled "A Strategy of Partnerships," Powell argues critics of the Bush administration "have exaggerated both the scope of preemption in foreign policy and the centrality of preemption in U.S. strategy as a whole." Whether the critics are right or wrong, or whether the policy is merely misunderstood, Powell argues that "the distortion of U.S. foreign policy strategy requires repair."
Without question Iraq dominated U.S. foreign policy this year. Actually the effort to avoid war against Saddam Hussein's regime began in the fall of 2002 when President George W. Bush challenged the United Nations to enforce its previous resolutions on Iraq. The administration got enough of what it wanted to pass a Security Council resolution, which it construed as approval for military action, even if other major powers like France, Russia and Germany, did not.
America's relations with two key allies, France and Germany, were further damaged when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared them part of "old Europe," not the "new Europe" which had joined the administration's call to oust Saddam's regime.
Therefore, much of this year was spent going back to the U.N. both before the war and again once major hostilities had ended, trying to re-engage those steadfastly opposed to America's preemptive course of action. Three additional resolutions concerning Iraq were debated and ultimately approved, thus bolstering Powell's argument that partnership and engagement with the international community was, indeed, administration policy.
The fact that Mr. Bush decided to go to war was victory enough for administration hard-liners such as Vice President Cheney and the Pentagon's Rumsfeld.
As secretary of state and the person perceived, correctly or not, as the administration's dove, Powell took a lot of the criticism for Washington's policies. But senior state department officials familiar with his thinking say Powell's views on going to war against Iraq are misunderstood. Powell, says one senior official, "was comfortable either way it went."
The aim of U.N. Security Council resolution 1441, passed in November of 2002, was to set up a process where Saddam could comply or go to war. Powell, the official noted, spent much of this year "working the process and getting a lot of the international community to go along."
Attempts to further internationalize the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq made some headway with more that 30 coalition partners now involved and a governing council, appointed by the U.S., starting to put an Iraqi face on the political and administrative decision-making. The plan is for Iraqis to assume political control in six months, but until that happens Washington will bear the brunt of the blame for how Iraq is managed. Clearly, the Bush administration is hoping the capture of Saddam Hussein at year's end will go a long way to reduce complaints about the handling of Iraq, not to mention attacks on American soldiers.
In addition to Powell's own recent diplomatic efforts, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III was dispatched to Europe to persuade France, Russia, Germany and others to reduce or forgive much of Iraq's foreign debt. Baker was well received and generally favorable promises were made. The mission also provided another path on which to mend relations with these allies.
While Iraq may have dominated foreign policy it was not the only trouble spot which needed constant attention. The rebuilding of Afghanistan continued, the highlight of which was NATO's taking over the security role in Kabul. Powell and his administration colleagues see this as a potential way out for U.S. troops in Iraq and are watching NATO's performance in Afghanistan closely.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued to rage in 2003 although Mr. Bush gathered the two sides long enough to sign an agreement in Jordan at midyear. However, weak political leadership on both sides, combined with the lack of constant senior level American diplomatic management left the parties to continue their own, mostly destructive policies.
There were several positive developments for America's foreign policy late in the year.
Iran agreed to accept more control from the international community on its nuclear programs and Libya declared it would end all its programs related to weapons of mass destruction. Washington will definitely take a wait and see attitude before it believes either regime has truly changed.
Asked about disappointments in foreign policy achievements during the year, a senior state department official cited "the fight with France as troublesome. Not only was it a disagreement over policy but over the notion that someone had to fight the U.S. That was pretty disturbing." Moreover, the official added, it's something the administration "will have to keep its eye on… so no one gets the idea that the way to stand up to the U.S. is to become another pole in the unipolar world."
By Charles M. Wolfson